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Schuylers-Monster2Last summer I was travelling with a good friend who does not like children or animals. Or people. But mostly children. She is quite happy being single and in charge of her own kingdom. That kingdom just happens to be the one from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang where the Child Catcher lures them out with lollipops and throws them into the paddy wagon. Our club-style hotel hosted a mixer for the guests and for a minute I thought a young family was going to join our table. Under my breath I threatened that under no circumstances was she to make a scene and move to another table. She confirmed with equal ferocity that that was exactly what she was going to do if they did not keep moving. We agreed she would be eating dinner alone. Thankfully her withering stare scared them away and I was spared the embarrassment. We were instead joined by three elderly ladies who spoke Italian with my friend and they thought she was a delight.

After I had lectured her on the joy that is strange children in public places, we spent the next morning on a crowded train with no air conditioning in 100-degree heat. A little boy and his mother sat next to me and for an hour the child kicked, screamed, threw food and generally irritated everyone within earshot. My friend watched in smug satisfaction from the seat she had managed to escape to a few rows back. I passed the time in seething judgment of the mother who clearly had no control over her Tasmanian devil of a child. I would like to think that I was able to keep a straight face and therefore my feelings to myself, but I’ll bet the poor woman felt every bit of my disdain as I picked cookie crumbs out of my hair. I’ve thought a lot since then about how we treat people whose children are misbehaving in public. The truth is that we know nothing about the strangers that we encounter in restaurants and airplanes and there is every chance that a situation like my train ride calls for compassion rather than criticism.

Rob Rummel-Hudson is an author and parent to a child with a rare neurological disorder caused by a malformation of the brain. He wrote a memoir about his daughter’s inability to speak and the family’s tireless efforts to find ways for her to communicate. It’s titled Schuyler’s Monster: A Father’s Journey with his Wordless Daughter. I read it in one sitting, mesmerized by this man’s honest and touching story about his struggle with feeling inadequate as a parent and fighting for a place in this world for his child. He tells a story of the first time he was confronted with a lack of compassion and patience while grocery shopping.

As I pondered the choices, Schuyler played a game that might be called “Sugar-crazed Howler Monkey Runs in Circles,” Since we were standing in the freezer section of a mostly unoccupied store, I was inclined to let her be rowdy for a while longer. A short older woman walked down the aisle in front of us, eyeing Schuyler with a pinched expression on her face. As she moved past us, the woman rolled her eyes and said loudly, “Wow, I hope you are not planning to have another one . . . “

”’I beg your pardon?” I said. She gave a short sarcastic chuckle and kept walking. “Wow,” I said, feeling my irritation growing. “I can’t believe you’ve never seen a rambunctious kid before.” The woman snorted and said, “Not like her . . . ” “Not like her.” This time, I’d heard something new from someone confronted with Schuyler’s uniqueness. I’d heard disgust. And rejection. Of Schuyler. I’d wondered for years if I would ever experience it, and suddenly there it was. This woman faced Schuyler’s jabbering and hooting and didn’t hear Schuylerese. She heard a feral child.

After confronting the woman and explaining the situation with his daughter’s brain disorder, he was expecting an apology. But what he got was, “I don’t care what’s wrong with her. If she can’t behave like a normal kid then she shouldn’t be out in public. Maybe you should have her institutionalized if she can’t do any better than that.”

It sounds like an extreme story. Really, who could be that cruel to a perfect stranger? Several of my friends have autistic children and in talking to them about their experiences in public, I have realized that it is a very common occurrence. In a time when our every thought is Twitter-worthy and we are free to spew our opinions, informed or otherwise, all over the Internet, we seem to have become a society of people who are emboldened and entitled to share our disapproval. And certainly anyone who dares to inconvenience us in any way is asking for a piece of our mind.

Just because a child looks like a spoiled brat throwing a tantrum, I don’t think it gives us the right to jump to conclusions and chastise the parents. The mother struggling to keep her screaming child quiet might be an incompetent mother who has no idea how to train a child. Or she could be a wonderful mother trying to deal with a disability that she is bravely battling every day. She might be doing her best to make a normal life for her family and could use an offer of assistance rather than a look of disapproval. And even if she is just a clueless mother, who are we that we feel compelled to make a stranger feel bad? Do we really need to look down our noses and make it clear we don’t approve of their child’s behavior just because we don’t appreciate being showered with their kid’s soggy cookie? Of course, there are obviously times to speak up when we witness what might be abuse or neglect. But I’m talking about those times when a child is making a mess in a restaurant or disturbing your meal, and you feel compelled to make a snide remark to the parents about keeping their animals in the zoo. I’m pretty sure you know what I mean. We’ve all been tempted.

Even the best-behaved children in the world have their moments and there is no such thing as a perfect parent. Embarrassing situations are inevitable. I know some children who will remain nameless who saw a horse urinating and running across a field at the same time and thought that would be an interesting experiment. Talk about a case for institutionalization. Maybe next time I find myself irritated when my comfort is being interrupted by a loud and seemingly out-of-control child, I should be a little less quick to judge and a little more compassionate.

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ImageI had a couple of friends coming over for dinner and I needed something interesting to do with Tilapia. I don’t really cook so much as heat things up, so it had to be simple and foolproof. I pulled some lemon-pepper marinade out of the fridge, put it down on the counter and went away to answer the phone. When I came back I picked up the bottle and shook it with all the enthusiasm I could muster. The only little thing I forgot was that I had loosened the cap when I got it out. A second later I was standing in the kitchen with marinade dripping down my face, through my hair, all over my clothes and down the cabinets. I took a few moments to let the shock wear off and survey the damage. It really was quite spectacular. It occurred to me, as I was standing there in lemon scented socks, that this is the reason I live alone, so no one is there to witness the train wreck. Just in case you think this was an unfortunate but atypical incident, last week my sister-in-law emailed an asparagus soup recipe to my mother and me. I replied that it tasted like dirt and thanks to my new hand-held blender that I have yet to master, it was now all over my kitchen wall. My mother’s response was, “That’s my girl.”

I have very vivid memories of my mother trying to teach me to cook. She can make anything without a recipe but I was the queen of banana bread. That is the only thing I remember making as a kid. When I get good at something I tend to stick with it. In my teen years I progressed to lemon bars, which was exciting for everybody. My mother was very smart about teaching me to cook, which sounds odd now that I have so graphically described her failure. She figured out that I am a stubborn piece of work and I don’t respond well to the now-I-am-going-to-teach-you-something approach. She didn’t put me in an apron and say, “And now we are going to cook.” When she was making dinner, she would casually mention tidbits like, “To get the core out of an iceberg lettuce, you slam it down on the counter and then the core twists right out.” Her cooking tips have stuck with me through the years because I didn’t realize I was being told what to do. The fact that I can’t keep my dinner off the kitchen walls has more to do with my unwillingness to practice than the quality of my education. My cooking skills did not develop beyond cookie baking and breaking up a lettuce because in my young adulthood I discovered that you can have pad thai and chicken tiki marsala delivered in thirty minutes for a fraction of the effort and cost.

The only place I get any experience is when I am helping out at my brother’s house. My niece Rose likes to get involved. She smashes egg shells into the omelets, loses count when she is measuring flour, and usually spills milk all over the floor. I don’t like cooking to start with, so I certainly don’t love cooking with a six-year-old tornado who insists on doing everything herself. But I am constantly reminded of the times my mother watched me burn this or put the wrong ingredients in that. People who have been afforded that kind of patience have a duty to pass it on, I guess. I don’t announce to Rose that I am cooking, but if she notices and pulls up a chair, I hand her the eggs. Then I get the spoon I will need to fish out all the eggshell.

What I can try to pass on is something that I did manage to learn from my mother: the art of entertaining. It has always amazed me that my mother can whip up a meal for twelve people with an hour’s notice and not freak out about it. In high school, my brother and I could easily sweet-talk her into letting our friends come over at the last minute. Something mysterious would come out of the freezer and turn into a fabulous dinner without any drama. We were so proud of her for that. Other mothers would carry on at the imposition or just let us fend for ourselves. The art of entertaining is a fabulous thing. Most people assume it’s about money and snobbery, but it’s actually about planning and presentation. You can order pizza and still present it to your guests like you care. Entertaining well is not about having a fancy home or owning the Crate and Barrel catalog. Money certainly helps provide the appearance of class, but in reality it is an attitude and a way of behaving. If you have ever turned on a television, you know that money does not produce class. So you don’t need money to learn how to treat guests in your own home.

When Rose grows up, I’m not the one she is going to call to ask how long you cook a turkey or what spices you use on a rack of lamb. But as an adult that she looks up to, I can teach a few things by example. When my nieces and nephews come to my house we are more likely to have a food fight with Goldfish crackers while watching The Lion King than to sit at a nicely set table, but there are always opportunities to teach good manners and entertaining etiquette. When we have dinner parties, Rose sees me taking coats, offering our guests something to drink and making sure everyone is included in the conversation. Children absorb so much from the example that we set. Let’s just hope she doesn’t follow my example of the proper way to apply lemon-pepper marinade.

ImageMy grandmother has a large, blue ceramic jug decorated with the face of a pirate coming out of the mouth of a lion, among other various characters you would not expect to find peering out from the side of a jug. In other words, it is very ugly. We don’t know how my great-great-grandparents came into possession of this monstrosity but it has been passed down for generations and now sits proudly in my mother’s living room. My brother and I have a running joke about which one of us has to take it and when we get fresh, my grandmother occasionally threatens to leave it to one of us in her will. I am trying to keep on her good side. What I have claimed as mine is an equally gaudy gold and green jar that has a music box in the lid. My great-grandmother kept dried ginger in it and my brother and I learned how to get the lid off without triggering the music box and we would sneak a piece, lick all the sugar off and then throw the spicy ginger away. It is a worthless jar that she probably won in a raffle at her lawn bowling club, but I love it and have cherished it for as long as I can remember.

My grandmother was recently in the hospital with heart failure so the family gathered together for some quality time. Naturally with a scare like that she was thinking about what she was going to leave to us, and the subject of inheritance and the importance of family heirlooms was on all of our minds. Grandma had just shipped her personal belongings from Australia to California when she moved in with my parents, so the house was overflowing with memories. I wandered from room to room remembering childhood visits with my grandparents: the silver hairbrush that always sat on her dresser, the painting of a tree that I always thought looked like a fat lady posing for a photo, the horse statue that I played with when she wasn’t looking.

Sitting in my grandmother’s hospital room in a moment of quiet, I asked her why it was so important to her to pass these things down. She said that what mattered to her was to be able to pass down an appreciation of the things of beauty and quality that she had valued enough to work for, to care for and to carry across several continents and back. The monetary value of her worldly possessions was meaningless; but they represented her life and her parents before her and their parents before them. Passing down the art and objects of beauty (blue jugs aside) was very important to her. She wanted me to learn that this life is not about acquiring as much stuff as you can. You should have things around you that matter, not just things that you have because that’s what Charlie Farnsbarns has. I didn’t ask but I think Charlie Farnsbarns is her version of keeping up with the Joneses. It’s been a while since I was fully fluent in Aussie slang but I’m pretty sure she made that up.

After contemplating this ritual that my grandmother was going through as she assigned her precious treasures to her descendants, I was lying in bed one morning listening to my mother making pancakes with her own grandchildren. My eight-year-old nephew was looking at a cabinet of knick-knacks and said to his little brother, “See that glass ship in a bottle? I would like to inherit that one day.” I lay in bed smiling. He wasn’t wishing he had a ship like that. He wasn’t asking for it. It was his ginger jar.

As the only member in my generation of the family without children of my own, I won’t be the one who is charged with keeping the treasures—and the memories that go with them—in the family. So I have been thinking about what I can do as an aunt to keep our family history alive for my brother’s and cousin’s kids, and here is what I have come up with. I would like to preface this list by saying that I am not necessarily talking about money and things of value here. Although my grandmother has some pieces of art that are beautiful, my family also has a set of multi-colored tin cups that we treat as family heirlooms because of the memories that they bring up. Family possessions do not have to have monetary value to make them important.

Tell kids the history behind family heirlooms and where they came from.

I would love to know how my great-grandmother came into possession of my ginger jar. I took the opportunity at the hospital to ask my grandmother about some of the decorations I had seen in her house for decades but had never taken the time to ask about. I listed many of the things I remembered as a child and she gave me the story behind how each of them came into her possession. I was shocked to realize that some of her things went back five generations. We don’t like to talk about having stuff because it sounds materialistic and crass. But as my grandparents get older I have noticed more and more that their stuff, the little knick-knacks and furniture that have survived through the years, really matters to them. These possessions represent a lifetime of memories. By learning the stories behind them, we are more likely to care too and treat their things with respect. I have personally observed how hurt an elderly person can be when their family shows no interest in the things they have loved and treasured. I am going to find more opportunities to tell my nieces and nephews about our family gems so that when it is their turn to take care of them, they will appreciate their significance and honor the memory of our ancestors. 

Tell kids stories that connect them to the family history.

When we visited my grandparents as little kids, my brother and I would jump into bed with them in the morning. We thought it was great fun to wake them up but now that I am an aunt who loves my morning snuggles, I realize they were probably lying there waiting for us. We would beg my grandfather to tell us stories about when he was young and it didn’t take much coaxing. We learned the stories by heart and would make requests such as, “Tell us about the time your dog got attacked by a kangaroo while you were mustering cattle and how you saved his life,” or, “Tell us the one about when Mummy got in trouble for riding her big sister’s horse and fell off.” My favorites were actually about World War II because it was a time we could not relate to and even the stories he could share with children were fascinating. He had a great tale about how he and his mates distracted a truck driver and relieved the Americans of their supply of socks and underwear from the back of the truck. He had a good laugh every time he told that one. As kids growing up in the city in America, those stories connected us to farm life, our Australian culture, and the history of the war, all at the same time. My father’s father had a similar morning story-time ritual and I have never forgotten the stories of how he survived the war as an Air Force bomb aimer and how our family came to be who we are now. They are both gone and my paternal grandfather’s military cap sits on my brother’s mantel piece and my maternal grandfather’s hat is on my shelf. Those hats represent every one of those stories for us.

Stories about the family can connect children to family heirlooms and give young ones a tangible connection to the past. Children understand things they can touch and feel. My great-grandfather was a jockey, and tales about my great-grandparents living in Hong Kong to help start the horse racing industry there give meaning to the Asian sculptures and furniture that my grandmother has saved. I don’t consider myself a good storyteller and I have never taken the time to tell the kids about what life was like for their dad and me growing up in Australia, or adjusting to our new life in America. Maybe instead of letting them fight over the games on my iPad when they get into bed with me, I should try starting my own morning story time.

Let kids grow into an appreciation of things

If my parents gave my nephew that ship in a bottle now, it would instantly lose its meaning for him. My ginger jar means so much to me because I have spent thirty-something years looking at it, playing with it and admiring it. My mother has had it for a while and she could have given it to me when I was younger but if she had, I wouldn’t appreciate it as much. Give children something to look forward to inheriting and they will value it more.  

Why should little trinkets like a ginger jar and an Air Force hat matter? Throughout much of human history, families were connected by land. Land gave the family roots and great care was taken to keep it in the family generation after generation. The land was not yours but something you were charged with taking care of until it was time to pass it on. Now that so many of us live in cities, we have lost that connection. When we die, we pass down whatever financial assets we have, but money dissipates. With no emotional association or family ties, it is likely to be spent or devalued by the economy. Families benefit from financial inheritance and that is a good thing. However it cannot replace the role that living on the land played in keeping loved ones together and preserving family history. This makes preserving items of family significance all the more important. It is not about materialism or accumulating wealth. It is about connecting to where we came from and keeping the legacy alive.

One day my brother will display the ugly blue jug and visitors will have to think of kind things to say about it. “Wow, isn’t that . . . interesting?” I will be very proud of him for caring enough about our family heirloom to ensure that it is safe and still around to be inflicted upon the next generation. I too am going to help keep our family history alive for my nieces and nephews so that when it is their turn, they understand and appreciate the things that represent their amazing and colorful family.